Survey Units are Unique Like Snowflakes

I had a mini database meltdown on the first day of field work and data entry. The specific problem with the database mostly involved how we were using it (and the limits on the particular tool we chose to use), but it highlighted the relationship between the unit as space and the unit as a procedural unit in intensive pedestrian survey. To put this another way, we can only walk the same unit once, and we are thinking about how to make our database reflect this.

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We began the process of creating new unique number for each field by creating a value that reflected the space of the survey (keyed to a polygon in our GIS) and the procedure we used to walk the unit. We identified four procedures: standard survey, grab samples, resurvey, or unsurveyed (used to describe, for example, a fenced area or a unit that is too close to the edge of a sheer cliff). 

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As I thought about this unique identifier for each unit in our database (and in our analysis), I got to wonder whether we need to refine this identification of a unit more. For example, there is the slim possibility that we could resurvey a unit more than once. So perhaps we should use as our unique identifier the space of the unit, the procedure, and the team leader. After all, this would allow us to distinguish as unique, different engagements with the unit led by different individuals. Even this might not be enough. If we’ve learned anything from Big Al Ammerman, it’s that you can never walk the same survey unit twice. Maybe we need to make the unique identifier the unit number, procedure, team leader, and date. 

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This is all a good bit to think about on the first day in the field, especially when it was damp, overcast, and muddy. Maybe it was being out in the field, however, and away from the blue light of the computer screen that prompted me to think about how we imagine space. It could also be that I managed to help to screw up mapping a few units as I got my survey legs back. Nothing like real fields in a changing landscape to shade my understanding digital contexts.

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